When COVID-19 patients started pouring into the emergency room of Kaiser Permanente Vallejo in Napa Solano, Calif., nurse Bahra McConnel Fisher ’76 was asked to meet with her supervisor, who gave her the option of transferring to another department to minimize her risk.
She was over 60 and a breast cancer survivor – two factors that increased her risk associated with the dreaded virus.
But Fisher loves being a frontline worker and has stayed on as the triage nurse for the overnight shift at the ER. After a patient is checked in, she takes their temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs.
Still, she feels the stress that has driven other health care professionals to take a leave of absence or early retirement. “It’s a scary disease and some people don’t take it seriously. At first, they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s only deadly for older people with preexisting conditions,’ but it’s not. We saw a 30-year-old who came in who just had a cough for two days, and then felt short of breath and passed away. There are a lot of people who come in bad shape that we can save, but it’s heartbreaking and it’s stressful.”
On a recent night, a sick COVID-19 patient was admitted, and Fisher stabilized her. Later in the night, a 69-year-old man who complained of shortness of breath died in his sleep.
“I worked through my lunch break that night,” she said.
Part of what makes treating COVID-19 so frustrating is that it’s hard to detect initially because of the wide range of symptoms. “If somebody’s coming in with a heart attack, they’re clutching their chest, they’ve got chest pain, and if somebody is coming with strep throat or a broken leg, you can see it. That’s what makes COVID so stressful. Some people come in with shortness of breath, others come in with a sore throat, some people will just come in with a fever or abdominal pain.” So, at Kaiser Vallejo, everyone who is admitted to the emergency room gets tested for COVID-19.
Fortunately, she said, Kaiser Permanente has provided the staff with an adequate supply of N95 masks and other personal protection equipment, and only a handful of her coworkers have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered. But the dual stress of keeping her patients alive while keeping herself safe is always there.
She credits Shady Side Academy with giving her the drive to rise to a challenge and the ability to get along with all types of people. She said her tennis coach, English teacher Dick Gregory, pushed her to do more, urging her to run that extra lap when she was tired during practices. “He gave me the gumption to keep going. I have always had that drive.”
“We developed good interpersonal relationships, being on a team. That is why I have succeeded as a nurse. I am able to work with people during a pandemic. I can listen. I have the drive to keep going. I feel like I can make a difference.”